Archive for January 2016

Belle Sucre (7500 North Mesa Street, #307)

Having recently moved to El Paso from Montréal, a city teeming with quality pastry shops (especially French pâtisseries), I was on the lookout for a competent pastry shop here in town as soon as I landed. Belle Sucre was my first discovery, one that has, in terms of creativity, execution, and consistency, only been matched so far by Orange Peel. (To boot, Jonathan Bowden, the chef behind the shop, boasts a delightfully sardonic sense of humour!) I have to admit I was initially ambivalent about giving Belle Sucre a try, the grammatical mistake in its name (“sucre,” a masculine noun, being “beau,” not “belle”) casting doubt on the quality of its confections. In the end, my (I admit, exaggerated) worries were unfounded. While I have found Belle Sucre to struggle ever so slightly with actual French pastries (the filling of their éclair au chocolat is unintentionally reminiscent of chocolate pudding), they excel at putting a French twist on classic American desserts (e.g, pumpkin pie). Indeed, these “classics with a twist” are always inspired and expertly executed, substituting American desserts’ usually homemade quality (by no means an undesirably thing) with French finesse and precision. À se lécher les babines!

Belle SucreIn addition to being a pastry shop, Belle Sucre also doubles as a bakery, offering baked goods like croissants and baguettes (as well as hybrid abominations like cronuts and cruffins, which, in Belle Sucre’s defence, are always an instance of the whole being lesser than the sum of its parts, regardless of the baker behind them). Rather impressively, Belle Sucre has managed to create the only baguette I know of in all of El Paso that technically qualifies as an actual baguette. (All other so-called “baguettes” I have had in town so far are simply elongated dinner buns.) While its aroma, crust, and taste are right on target, the crumb’s texture is, unfortunately, not as baguette-like as it could be: dry-ish and speckled with small pockets of air, instead of soft and “stretchy” with medium to large pockets of air. While this problem (possibly due to altitude) prevents Belle Sucre’s baguette from feeling completely authentic, it remains a baguette in all other respects, and, despite its limitations, an enjoyable one at that. Now if only El Paso would produce a decent fromagerie and charcuterie to enjoy Belle Sucre’s baguettes with!

Re-reading my review, I feel like I am being rather hard on Belle Sucre, considering the sheer quality of its diverse and ambitious products. I choose to leave my review intact, however, but qualify it with this: I am being hard on Belle Sucre because it is so close to pastry and bakery perfection—indeed, it reminds me of the better pâtisseries and bakeries in my home town—that the small issues that prevent it from reaching those culinary heights become even more noticeable. However noticeable these issues may be, however, do not let them stop you from visiting Belle Sucre. I certainly haven’t!

Orange Peel (4700 North Mesa Street)

Orange Peel could stand toe-to-toe with Montreal’s more eclectic (and less traditional) pastry shops (e.g., Pâtisserie Rhubarbe), were it to spontaneously relocate there.

Orange PeelInside this diminutive (but oh so quaint) pastry shop stands a refrigerated glass display filled with triple-threat confections that a) are simultaneously playful and homey in appearance, b) demonstrate exquisite texture (a feat made all the more surprising by the fact that many of the confections are gluten-free), and c) feature creatively combined and expertly balanced flavours that bring into play natural aromas and just enough sweetness. (Indeed, in a rare show of restraint for an American dessert establishment, sweetness is here kept on a leash, letting instead aromas come to the forefront of the flavour experience.)

Although pastries on offer change regularly, new arrivals always come across as completely thought-through and carefully put-together, as if their recipes had been worked on and perfected over years. (Fortunately, old favourites make regular comebacks!) Indeed, there is an effortless quality to how the one single chef behind Orange Peel, Julie Adauto, comes up with and executes new recipes, one that testifies to the extent of her pastry passion, knowledge, and skills. To top it all off, Chef Adauto is extremely friendly and always a joy to talk to and discuss her work with. Fortement recommandé!

I wrote the following review of Valentine’s Bakery & Kitchen about one year ago, but never got around to publishing it here on A Heck of a Kerfuffle. To properly remedy this omission on my part, I have below reproduced my initial, year-old review of Valentine’s, and followed it up with a brand-new update:

My husband and I had dinner at Valentine’s Bakery & Kitchen yesterday evening. Don’t let the modest (but very clean) interior fool you: dishes here are prepared and plated thoughtfully, with an attention to taste, texture, and presentation. The shrimp ceviche, the tortilla chips, as well as the fish and shrimp tacos, were particularly impressive. The ceviche combined plump pieces of shrimp with just enough citral acidity, which itself was rather cleverly tempered with the creaminess of avocado purée. The freshly fried tortilla chips were crisp and airy, like thick and savoury triangles of phyllo pastry. (To be honest, Valentine’s tortilla chips are truly like none we’ve ever had before.) As for the tacos: the fish fillets and shrimp were plump and only lightly dusted in breadcrumbs—giving you some “crunch,” while still letting you appreciate the fish and shrimp meat—and rested on mini-tortillas that were sweet and tender. We look forward to visiting Valentine’s again soon, and wish them the best in a town that is tragically short on the kind of thoughtful and subtle cooking we had the pleasure of experiencing at their establishment.

UPDATE: Since our first visit there, Valentine’s has revealed itself to be one of the most accomplished local purveyors of pan blanco, a Mexican bread that, under their bakers’ care, boasts an incredibly soft crumb with unusually pleasant hints of tartness. (Pan blanco is the go-to bread for torta, a Mexican type of sandwich often named after its main ingredient. My own personal, homemade favourite: torta de gravlax! Truly, a match made in heaven that gives bagels and lox a run for their money.)

The happy discovery that Valentine’s bakery puts out one heck of a pan blanco has, I’m afraid, been accompanied by some not-so-happy developments on the kitchen and service fronts. To begin with, we have come to notice that Valentine’s struggles with one of the cardinal features of competent cuisine: consistency. Indeed, over the course of several meals, the kitchen mishandled key ingredients (by, for instance, overcooking fish or over-salting meat) and/or completely omitted key ingredients from their usually pitch-perfect recipes (namely, the avocado purée from the ceviche). Most tragically, however, Valentine’s has inexplicably opted to remove their fish and shrimp tacos—two of their strongest dishes, when prepared appropriately—from their menu. Also, we noted a decline in the quality of service. Indeed, our server (during our last three visits) had trouble reconciling her sulky demeanour with her customer-service responsibilities. This failure on her part had the unfortunate consequence of imposing a drab atmosphere onto our dining experience, an atmosphere which evoked a loss of passion on Valentine’s part. In fact, we have gotten the sense (one we hope is mistaken) that the restaurant is no longer committed to its craft, preferring instead to mechanically output food without attention to detail.

We sincerely hope that Valentine’s finds it within itself to rekindle its former glory by a) encouraging the different chefs that helm the kitchen throughout the day to attentively follow the strong recipes outlined by the original menu creator, b) reinstating strong dishes into its menu, and c) infusing a certain brightness and lightness of spirit back into its service. Promisingly, Valentine’s glory days aren’t buried too deep in the past. Surely, the time is still ripe for them to reach back and become relevant again.

BasicoMy husband and I recently visited Basico Bistro + Café for breakfast. Despite its hip and modern atmosphere, the restaurant ultimately failed to impress. To our disappointment, the breakfast menu on offer was a pared-down version of the (clearly not updated) breakfast menu displayed on the restaurant’s website. From this shortened menu, we ordered the Roman Empire omelette (instead of the intended eggs benedict), along with the banana & walnut pancakes. The florentine-esque omelette proved rather ho-hum, being so paper-thin it lacked any enjoyable texture. Testifying as to the omelette’s dullness, not even its overly salty fillings could bring it to life… Both light and fluffy, the pancakes fared a little better. Unfortunately, their appearance was rather anemic (lacking that golden brown quality) and their flavour profile disappointingly light on banana notes.

Further, although we had requested the pancakes be served with pure maple syrup, and not artificial table syrup, we were nevertheless served the latter. In the end, our server, along with the cooks, reluctantly (yet apologetically) admitted that they thought the artificial table syrup they had on hand was pure maple syrup. (Further questioning on our part revealed that they did not know what pure maple syrup was.) Suffice it to say, we were not impressed with the staff’s lack of knowledge regarding basic breakfast ingredients (in so far as North American cuisine is concerned, which the restaurant’s fare falls squarely into). Moreover, we felt misled by the restaurant’s promise (one implicitly made to customers via its hip and modern décor) of serving only thoughtfully sourced ingredients. In this regard, Basico Bistro + Café stands in stark contrast to Crave Kitchen & Bar, which proudly announced, when we last visited and requested pure maple syrup along with our order, that they “most certainly serve the real stuff.” That being said, in Basico Bistro + Café’s defense, our server did seek to remedy the “situation” as best she could, by enquiring about the origin of pure maple syrup and the process via which it is made, an effort the “produits du terroir québécois” enthusiast in me greatly appreciated.

Crave Kitchen & BarCrave Kitchen & Bar satisfyingly delivers on both the breakfast and lunch fronts. Breakfast-wise, my husband and I generally share their buttermilk pancakes. The pancakes are surprisingly low on sugar, which suits us just fine, because we get to pour even more genuine maple syrup on top of our stack! (Being from Québec, I appreciate Crave not automatically serving artificial table syrup along with their pancakes, like most other breakfast joints in town.) Lunch-wise, we generally share their tuna ceviche and shrimp quesadillas, which are both tastily put together. (I should mention at this point that Crave kindly accommodates diet restrictions. Indeed, being pesco-vegetarian, I always ask our server to hold the chorizo on the quesadillas, a request which never seems to inconvenience the kitchen.)

Given Crave’s strengths in both the breakfast and lunch areas, the promise of enjoying both their breakfast and lunch items at the same time, in the form of their advertised Sunday Brunch, had me excited. Unfortunately, Crave defines Brunch in a rather unusual way, one that, in my eyes at least, negates the whole concept of Brunch. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Crave does not, for all intents and purposes, actually serve Brunch, even though their website claims they do.

The portmanteau word “Brunch” implies that both breakfast and lunch overlap, with breakfast being served beyond breakfast-time (over lunchtime), and lunch being served beyond lunchtime (over breakfast-time), thus allowing patrons to enjoy breakfast and lunch at breakfast-time, or breakfast and lunch at lunchtime, depending on their preference. Crave’s definition of Brunch, however, gives the “lunch” part of the expression the short end of the stick, with breakfast being served all day long, and lunch being served at boring, old lunchtime. In other words, Crave serves an all-day breakfast on Sundays, not Brunch (lunch being served at the appropriate time). And so, those looking to have Brunch in the “breakfast and lunch at breakfast-time” sense of the word will be disappointed. Indeed, when I first visited Crave for their purported Brunch (around 11AM or so) and ordered both breakfast and lunch items, I was informed by my server (who did not seem to realize the irony of her statement) that part of my Brunch (i.e., the lunch part) would have to wait until noon. For these reasons, those looking to enjoy a genuine Brunch experience (i.e., breakfast and lunch at the same time, starting late morning and ending mid-afternoon) should, unfortunately, look elsewhere.

Café Italia

My husband and I visited Café Italia a few months ago and were thoroughly impressed with their pizza. (So much so we ordered three of them, and finished every last slice, right then and there!) Looking to celebrate New Year’s Eve out on the town, we decided to visit the restaurant again and explore the rest of their tantalizing (and refreshingly diminutive) menu.

This time around, we limited ourselves to only one pizza, which we preceded with an antipasto platter and followed with shrimp linguine. Although featuring mozzarella and salami, the antipasto platter eclipsed both Italian staples with perfectly roasted and seasoned vegetables (including, among others, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and carrots). Once again, the pizza was immaculately composed: the crust combined perfectly balanced flavor (subtly salty and yeasty on the tongue) and texture (crispy on the bottom and doughy on the edges); the toppings (buttery mushrooms infused with fennel and rosemary) weaved potent aromas; and the mozzarella delivered fresh and delicate flavor and texture.

Regarding the shrimp linguine, I was bracing myself for disaster: when I asked our server, “Can you make sure the pasta is al dente?”, he shot me a quizzical look and answered, “What’s that?” (Certainly, servers shouldn’t be expected to know as much as chefs; still, I stand by my expectation that a server in a dedicated Italian restaurant should, at the very least, know what “al dente” means, if only to reassure worried patrons like myself that we are, indeed, in good hands, and that our meal won’t be botched.) Fortunately, I had, for the most part, nothing to worry about: on the cusp of being overdone, the pasta nonetheless retained enough of a bite. Further, it was tossed in one of the most exquisite Alfredo sauces—equal parts creamy and buttery—I have ever tasted. That being said, the shrimp were, at best, superfluous: coated in Alfredo, they acted as a vehicle for the sauce—redundantly, pasta already filling that role—as opposed to playing off of it somehow with complimentary flavors and textures (e.g., by getting some char on the shrimp and resting them on top of the sauce, instead of folding them into it).

Typically, the best international restaurants in El Paso are satisfactory by local standards only (something that may change as the city continues to overcome its cultural isolation): put them up against their equivalents in most other large cities and they would pale in comparison. Café Italia, however, stands toe-to-toe with some of the best restaurants on offer in Little Italys across North America. Locally, Café Italia remains unmatched, surpassing other restaurants billing themselves as authentically Italian, as well as those serving Italian fare as part of an eclectic menu. Some examples: the pizza at Ardovino’s Desert Crossing suffered from a bottom so soggy it couldn’t support its toppings, and pasta from Café Central was so overdone it had to be returned to the kitchen.

Café Central

Café Central certainly looks the part: servers clad in classical waiting garb, tasteful (albeit outdated) décor, old favorites playing in the background, verbose yet diminutive menu set in leather covers… Everything you’d schematically expect to see in a fine-dining establishment. Patrons who know better, however, will not be fooled. (Incidentally, “better” is just a few steps away, at Anson Eleven’s second story restaurant.) To those unversed in genuine fine-dining, make no mistake: Café Central is all appearance and no substance, the mass-market version of fine-dining that safely caters to people’s conceptions of what fine-dining is, as opposed to the formative version of fine-dining that, vanguard-like, seeks to shape people’s conceptions of what fine-dining can be.

My husband and I have visited Café Central on two occasions, once to confirm its status as an El Paso institution, and a second time to, well, give them a second chance at making us understand why exactly they’ve come to hold institutional status here in town. With one rousing exception, every dish we ordered on both of our times there left us, at best, unimpressed, and, at worst, frustrated: lackluster sauces, unevenly cooked seafood (i.e., varying wildly from moist and succulent to criminally overcooked), pasta so far past al dente it had to be returned to the kitchen… The list of grievances goes on an on.

To make matters worse, the tendency to fall short systemically extends from the kitchen to the bar: their old fashioned, that old standard by which every bar should be judged, was so lazily assembled its flavor profile was, as a consequence of this, utterly boring. (You know you’re in trouble when a barman grabs a bottle you’ve seen advertised on TV, or plops a store-bought candied cherry, in all its Red #4 glory, into your drink!)

That being said, one dish partially redeems Café Central: pastel de tres leches. Their elevated take on the Mexican classic (one of my favorite soaked cakes, right alongside French Canada’s pouding chômeur, Britain’s sticky toffee pudding, and France’s baba au rhum) is, I assure you, something to behold: light and airy sponge cake, saturated to perfection in sweet, fragrant milk, and draped in velvety smooth frosting. If only the same amount of thought and quality of execution permeated the rest of their menu, Café Central would live up to its name. As mentioned earlier, if you’re looking for the true center of fine-dining in El Paso, visit Anson Eleven’s second story restaurant: it will challenge you, surprise you, inspire you, satisfy you, leave you wanting more. It will do for you what fine-dining—genuine fine-dining that uses food to edify—should do.

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